Future Tense

“Herēka”

In this new short story, Tochi Onyebuchi imagines how we might celebrate the overlooked contributions of women in science in 2071.

Colorful poster illustration of a hand doing a puzzle of women's profiles.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work.

In the future, how might we overcome the systemic erasure of historically marginalized people? In this story, Onyebuchi imagines the world of 2071, in which advances in data science, cryptography, and a reverence for natural systems provides new ways of documenting and archiving women’s contributions to STEM fields throughout history.

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Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.

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Her great-grandmother’s brain was to be the centerpiece of the exhibit.

Technically, it was a holographic reproduction of her brain. And splashed on the surrounding walls would be inverted Merkle tree displays, each block containing a cryptographic hash of the previous block, two timestamps, and a name and brief description of an innovation in a scientific discipline. Farrah Freeman had overseen the data collection operation, and it had been a graduate student in her department, Sharmistha Gilmore, who had come up with the idea for the two timestamps: one to track the creation of the blockchain and note when exactly each block was created, the other to announce the year of the scientific breakthrough that paved the way for its child.

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The anxiety Sharmistha had given voice to made sense to Farrah: How ironic would it be to conduct all this work documenting the forgotten past, filling in the gaps in the historical scientific record, and fail to keep notes tracking their own progress. Even then, in the project’s infancy, Farrah realized, Sharmistha and the others saw their names existing in the same continuum as their forebears.

Physicist Carolyn Beatrice Parker of the Dayton Project, who worked on using polonium as an initiator for atomic explosions, Shirley Ann Jackson and her work on the Landau-Ginzburg theories describing superconductivity in layered compounds, Alicia Clay-Jones and her research into information security, Aziza Baccouche and her seminal dissertation “Phenomenology of Isoscalar Heavy Baryons”—all of these formed a family, not just of ideas but of the women who bore them. Farrah Freeman and her team were their descendants, and Sharmistha was right to see their team as part of that Merkle tree, even if it would fall to future generations to add the names and accomplishments of Farrah and the brilliant women that made up her team, and to continue to tend the tree as it grew and spread.

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But right now, there were no glowing Merkle trees. The walls around Farrah were not those of a museum hall, but of something closer to a morgue. They were the blue-gray of a storage unit.

The room hummed with the processing power of the CPUs, and it felt, when Farrah closed her eyes, like they were singing to her in one voice. Her ancestors.

A door whisked open behind her, and a gust of cold wind chilled Farrah’s back.

“Nervous?” Sharmistha said when she arrived at Farrah’s side. She handed Farrah one of the two mugs of tea she held. “We couldn’t find you, so I figured you’d be here.” After a few moments of silence, “You wanna sit, Professor?”

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“Sure,” Farrah said, distracted.

With a nod of her head, Sharmistha led Farrah to a bench off to the side. To see the main wall of CPUs that would, tomorrow morning, beam the culmination of their work into the exhibit hall, she now had to turn to the right.

For a long while, the two of them sat in that posture of reverence, until Sharmistha once again broke the silence. “You know, it’s going to work, right? We’ve tested it out dozens of times. Calibrated the brightness, cross-checked the open-source data, closed off the system to security breaches … what am I talking about, you oversaw the whole thing.”

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“I did …”

Sharmistha frowned softly. “What’s wrong?”

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The air was pregnant with quiet. “You remember the story of Carobeth Laird.”

“The ethnographer. Wrote about the Chemehuevi of the Great Basin.”

“Her life’s work was documenting a disappearing culture and language, and she was discouraged from publishing until the tail end of her life. We were almost doubly deprived.” Farrah looked at her hands and wondered how much they resembled the hands of those who came before her. Or how little. Sewing hands, factory hands, sharecropping hands. Keyboard hands, typewriter hands, hammer-swinging hands. Baking hands, cooking hands. Back-rubbing hands. Hands that bathed babies. Abrased hands exposed to too much polonium.

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Farrah knew from the way Sharmistha’s body was tensed that the younger woman felt an urge to fill the silence, maintain the rhythm of the conversation, announce her presence and the comfort and solace it offered. But Sharmistha stayed silent, and Farrah smiled wryly, wondering if perhaps, after all this time working together, Sharmistha had finally learned her supervisor’s proclivities. That sometimes Farrah wanted only to think out loud.

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“It feels incomplete.” She turned to Sharmistha and smiled. “I know we did the best we could. We are doing the best we can. The marathon continues. I know all of this. I just …” At Sharmistha’s warm gaze, Farrah whispered, “She died so early.” The project leader choked back a sob. “She was only 48.” She raised her head to look at the ceiling, to look through it, then wiped away tears. “At night, I dream about what it must have been like for her in Gainesville, Florida. March 17, 1966. Lord knows how often I’ve recited that date in my head.” It took Farrah a few more moments to pull herself together, and even then she could only just barely hold on. “Two years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s killing, Bobby Kennedy dying, the whole country being set on fire. Two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. … What a time to be alive.”

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Sharmistha put a hand over Farrah’s, which were clasped in her lap.

“Carolyn Parker … my great-grandmother, she … she worked on the bomb. I’m sure she told herself it was all just for science, that there was more to what she was doing than destruction … but did she?” And that was the crux of the matter. The years and years and years spent amassing the data, trawling the public record, the private histories, debating and arguing and fighting over which scientific innovations were spawned when and by whom. They’d gotten so close to the ultimate truth of the lived experience of their ancestors. Close enough to feel the texture of a child’s cotton dress. “Of course, she couldn’t talk about her work on the Dayton Project, and who’s to say how much she even knew of the larger Manhattan Project. But imagine keeping a secret like that from even your sister.” Farrah’s fingers tightened around each other. “How she must have struggled with herself. The first African-American woman believed to have achieved a postgraduate degree in physics, and leukemia takes her on the eve of her dissertation defense. Because of her work for the government.” Her grip on herself loosened. “We were almost doubly deprived.”

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Sharmistha moved her thumb and middle finger to one of the beads on her bracelet, twisted slightly, and a blue hologram came to life before them, shimmering before full color bled into it. It was a moving picture, an animated GIF of sorts, hovering before them. And it was an image to which the team had often returned during the course of their work. A sort of guiding star.

The photograph’s metadata pinned the image’s geographic location to the state of Meghalaya, in northeast India. In the photo, a massive rubber fig tree had been laid horizontal to form the vertebrae of a two-level bridge spanning two verdant, almost swampy ridges. At first, what looked like ropy vines had been braided together to make handholds and light walking barriers, but upon closer inspection, they were revealed to be roots, the aerial roots of the rubber fig trees. Thicker roots sprang upward like diagonal pylons from which vines hung, disappearing into the canopy of leaves overhead. The whole thing looked like a fantastical creature, a tree-being, stretched out over a river. The photo had been taken at night, and from an angle below and to the side of the bridge, so that the trees with branches overhead glowed a halo of bright green amid the dark. A jing kieng jri.

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Local habitants planted figus elastica saplings on both sides of river. After 10 to 15 years, they would use bamboo scaffolding to guide the aerial roots that would have grown by then. And with the passing of each year, the bridge-builders would pull down the aerial roots and weave them together so that both bridge-ends, both trees, could eventually meet. And as the roots were tied together, anastomosis would fuse them further. It could take a whole generation for a bridge to fully mature.

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Jing kieng jri,” Farrah said quietly, as she dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “From your mother’s homeland. I remember when you first showed this to the team.”

Sharmistha nodded. “I know that we’re supposed to look at that bridge and think about inheritance. But …” She paused and her mouth worked to find the words she wanted. “I look at this photo and I think of the work. I think about the communal effort, I think about the ways in which nothing was killed, nothing was burned, nothing was plowed over to make this thing. But I also think about the wonder. What it must have been like to first figure out that technology.”

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“That sense of discovery,” Farrah breathed.

“They felt it too. And you know what?” Sharmistha leaned in. “I think it’s the same for all of us. The Eureka Moment.”

Farrah smiled in return. “The Hereka Moment.”

Silence fell around them again, and both were content to sit in it for a bit longer.

“My tea’s gotten cold,” Sharmistha said, rising. “Wanna fire the display up again? You know, just to make sure it’s working all right.”

Farrah was thinking about the moment she first saw the jing kieng jri, then the moment long ago when she finished the proposal for this documentation project, then, even further back, to the moment she realized she was good at calculus, at physics, at all the things that would allow her to organize the universe. Like discovering a superpower. She watched Sharmistha head for the entrance and realized anew, with almost the same force as the first time, that Sharmistha had felt the same, that everyone on the team had felt the same at one point or another. That the women whose names and discoveries lay in the CPUs around her had felt the same.

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Others would feel it after Farrah, after everyone in the group had long since passed.

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Farrah rose, wiped one last tear from her face, and headed for the door, trailing behind her a whispered image of a younger version of her, of all of them, like the raised root of a fig tree, stretching to meet its family in the shadowed distance.

Author’s note: The word eureka, whose origin as exclamation is pinned to an apocryphal story concerning the mathematician Archimedes, is derived from the Ancient Greek word heúrēka, which, translated to English, means “I have found it.”

***

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life work and detailed historical investigations being conducted today by Liz Harmon at the American Women’s History Initiative, Smithsonian Institution Archives, and Rebecca Dikow at the Smithsonian Data Science Lab.

Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the poster here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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